During the 1930s, this time of year was a lucrative one for Lester and Edna Halladay.
They would hitch up their horse team and venture into the bush collecting sap from the many maples covering their beloved Plum Hollow property. They used this otherwise quiet time of the year bridging winter and spring to make gallons of the sweetest syrup available in the area, some of which was sold to help supplement their household income.
Nowadays, this tradition is proudly maintained by the Halladay’s son-in-law James Campbell and his nephew and partner in the hobby, Jim Carbino.
“We’re located on Daytown Road in Plum Hollow and it’s land that has been in my wife’s family for over 100 years,” said Campbell. “I have been doing sugar making for the past 20 years.”
Their sprawling, idyllic sugar bush is 120 acres and they tap approximately 700 trees every year. Their setup includes two small runs of tubing, but the rest is old school – hundreds of buckets and pails. “Our season usually starts around the end of February or early March. Last year was a very poor year so hopefully 2022 will make up for it, but Mother Nature will decide,” explained Campbell.
When things do go well, their operation at Plum Hollow burns about one and a half to two face cords of wood per day boiling. “It’s mostly ironwood because these trees blow down over the year … Turns out it’s also one of the best for heat,” he said. “We also use some basswood too, just to get the fire started.”
From there, it can be a test of endurance depending on how cooperative the weather has been. “Our season is usually 15 to 20 days and we quit when we run out of sap, wood or energy,” he joked.
Part of the lure for many engaged in making syrup is working so close to nature in their own sugar shack – or cabane à sucre depending on where you happened to grow up in the country. “The existing sugar house has been there approximately 80 years,” said Campbell. “I really like making maple syrup as it’s outdoors and allows our family and friends to get together … Ours is a joint project with help from many. All guests are welcome to help.”
The long days in crisp air yield the sweet delights that have been a key product that has helped sustain people around Our Lakes since pre-contact times.
“It’s pretty hard to beat the end product,” concluded Campbell. “We make our syrup mainly for our families although we do sell a little to help cover some of the expenses involved.” If you’re interested in trying their bit of liquified heaven, you can contact them via email at email@example.com.
Most folks out in the sugar bush nowadays only make enough for gifts and personal use. That’s what Roy Sunstrum does this time of year on his property near Westport. “We make syrup at our cottage on Lee Lane, Wolfe Lake in South Frontenac. We’ve been tapping for over a decade, but through 2020 the operation was super basic … boiling over an open fire, finishing on the stove (exhaust fan on high is critical).”
The family oasis is a total of seven acres and in 2021 they expanded to tap about 55 trees concentrated within roughly three acres of the property. He describes their setup as a “fairly advanced hobby operation” as it exists now. “In 2021 our main additions were better sap storage, an evaporator, and vacuum filtration system.” Despite that, he’s still 100% buckets, “mainly because we don’t want the forest littered with lines for the full year. We also value the traditional craft. We could really increase our output with lines, vacuum systems, and more, but it’s really for the fun of it.”
For all of the investments he made in his hobby, last year’s production was still extremely condensed thanks to the spring we had. “Last year we tapped in about the third week of February based on some nice weather, but it may have been premature in that it led to a lot of waiting,” he said. “Last year we tracked our sap collection and over 60% of our flow happened in a stretch of three to four days around March 20.”
He stressed each year is different. “2021 was one of the worst years in a long time. I learned so much (with much left to learn) … for example, some of our nice early weather was with a lot of snow still in the forest, insulating the roots, and reducing the value of the warm days.”
As with many things in life, the past doesn’t necessarily predict the future, so 2021 will really have little or no bearing on 2022. “Fingers crossed that it is a better one!”
After the sap, wood is the next critical element needed to make your own syrup. A lot of wood.
“The fire needs to be very hot, so the wood fired evaporator is operated with the draft open, and sometimes the door even open a crack. So, wood burns quickly … replenishing every 20 to 30 minutes,” said Sunstrum. “Smaller longer pieces of hard wood such as maple, ironwood, and ash is what I focus on. Larger blocks will burn longer but with less heat. I probably boiled at least 15 days last year but collected for about five weeks. Some of those days had low flow so we weren’t even on site.”
His office on site is another recent addition to the operation. “We built a sugar shack in fall 2020 with the help of my son’s company. It’s small by sugar shack standards at eight feet by 12 feet. It houses the two-foot by three-foot CDL evaporator. It’s built with a cupola for venting the steam. It worked really well and I loved my time there in 2021, except for the relative isolation that COVID was still delivering.”
Sunstrum is semi-retired, though still working with a few companies including Shopify, where he spent over five years previously in full-time senior leadership roles. “I even did a number of virtual meetings from the sugar shack, and just outside of it on gorgeous March days,” he recalled. “At least once I offered that if my background was bringing jealousy, I’d turn off my camera!”
The pandemic made last year a fairly lonely affair and he knows it’s hard to predict much that’s going to change this year. “I had a couple of our adult kids and kids-in-law up for an evening. My wife was with me parts of the time, especially filtering and bottling, that goes better with two people. I know quite a few people have said they’d love to be part of it this year. We’ll see!”
For Sunstrum and his wife the main thing attracting them to their hobby is their love of maple, “especially my wife. Mighty fine in an Old Fashioned I might add. The other thing is just loving harvesting in harmony with nature’s bounty. At our Perth home, we garden, have a small orchard, and are just finishing building a greenhouse so maple syrup making is consistent with all of that.”
2021 resulted in enough syrup for family and close friends – hopefully this year will allow them to widen that circle. “The empty bottles are flowing back in hopes of a refill!”
His advice to people just starting out is that it’s perfectly fine to start small.
“I realized last year that all along we could have built a simple three-sided cement block setup to contain more heat. Oh well, now we’re even better off,” said Sunstrum. “Even a few trees and an open fire can render your own liquid delight!”
Buck Lake’s Lynne and Jim Hendry are the epitome of a small-scale syrup operation and that suits them just fine. Lynne grew up cottaging on Buck Lake and after her husband’s career in mining took they and their three daughters all over the continent, they knew exactly where they wanted to settle down.
“My husband Jim and I moved to Buck Lake in October 2008, moving into Rick Smith’s old place and took over his maple trees,” she said. “We produced our first batch of syrup in 2010. We are a very small operation tapping about eight trees, hanging 14 buckets. The trees we tap are all within walking distance of our boiler. No motorized machines here just tall boots and snowshoes (when the snow refuses to leave) and a battery drill for placing spiles.”
Their operation is very old school with a lawn chair by the fire for comfort if the snow is not too deep and the cab of a truck to sit in when the wind and rain blow up.
“We can usually count on having the buckets hung by Family Day (Feb. 21 in Ontario), but at least once we have had them up at the end of January,” Hendry explained. “We collect wood all year for our annual boil. Dead fall, branches and leftover untreated wood from construction projects. What we have collected looks like a lot but will only last for two days of boiling. We collect even more as the pot boils and are not picky as long is it will burn safely when it goes on the pile.”
They usually have enough sap to do two boils per season, each lasting a couple of days.
“Our boiler was given to us by my brother Art. He made it and it works great. We boil the sap in the boiler until it’s about 80% finished then paper filter it before finishing it on a cooking surface looking out over the lake from our front deck. This allows for accurate measurement of Brix with a hydrometer,” she said. Syrup quality is often measured on the Brix Scale using a hydrometer calibrated to read in degrees of Brix or Balling – or the percentage of pure sugar by weight.
“We share our syrup with family and friends and usually make it through with one or two bottles left over at the start of the next season,” she said. “We only produce about five or six litres and bottle in 250ml and 500ml bottles so it looks like a lot. It’s popular with those who try it. I think our secret for success is to filter, filter, filter, and to check the density/sugar content with the hydrometer.”
They’ve thought about enhancing their operation with more infrastructure including a sugar shack. “At the end of each season we proclaim it to be our last, but when we see the golden results and as the weather changes in late winter, we find ourselves dusting off the buckets, gathering the equipment, preparing for the run to begin.”
They are already working on 2022’s batch but like Campbell and Sunstrum they aren’t really sure what to expect in terms of production. “The thing about Mother Nature is that when the world is turned upside down and you don’t know what it will throw at you next, the sap keeps running and yes we always hope for a good year but accept what she gives us. What she always delivers is time outside enjoying the changing season and the beginning of spring.”